08/10/2008 11:00PM

Take Captain Steel over Azul Leon in Best Pal


PHOENIX - The Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes on Sunday at Del Mar continues the summer ritual as the juveniles sort themselves out for the future. Are they champions, graded stakes horses, stakes horses, allowance types, or maybe claimers? It's too early to say, but the 6 1/2-furlong Best Pal can at least provide a clue.

Azul Leon is the only stakes winner in the race, having captured the Grade 3 Hollywood Juvenile. Yet there's some question as to just whom he was beating.

There was not a thing wrong with the way Azul Leon won the Hollywood Juvenile. He bided his time, tipped out in the stretch, and blasted home, easily winning by four lengths. The Beyer Speed Figure, on the other hand, won't get the pulse racing, hitting the meter at 79.

The horse who ran second, Making Dreams, is a nice horse but has yet to look like a world-beater. He won his debut at Santa Anita April 4, but since then finished fifth in the Willard Proctor, second in the Hollywood Juvenile, fifth in the Graduation here July 23, and fifth in Santa Rosa's Cavonnier Juvenile last Sunday. The horse who ran third behind Azul Leon in the Juvenile, Fassnacht, is still a maiden. After that July 5 Hollywood Juvenile he ran 11th in a Del Mar maiden race on July 26.

So there remains a big question about the level of competition Azul Leon defeated at Hollywood. Like many others, my eye has wandered elsewhere for a winner.

I didn't have to look far. Sitting with a cozy rail draw - and potentially the speed of the speed - is Captain Steel. Trained by Jeff Mullins, Captain Steel ran in midpack in his Hollywood Park debut May 22, finishing fifth. Mullins gave him a couple months away, and when the colt resurfaced going 5 1/2 furlongs on July 13, it was a different story.

Under rider Clinton Potts, Captain Steel jumped right out of the gate to assume command. He took some early pressure to the far turn, then Potts let out a notch, and that was all she wrote. Captain Steel bounded away, winning by 7 1/4 lengths and earning a 96 Beyer Figure. Only S. S. Stone, with his winning debut Beyer of 87, comes close.

It isn't just the Beyer, and it isn't just how he drew clear at will - it's also a matter of style.

Oddly, for a 2-year-old stakes, there doesn't seem to be an abundance of speed in the Best Pal. There are runners that can press the pace, but Captain Steel is the only true speedster. It might not take much for him to clear off early and dictate the pace. His strong 59.20-second five-furlong work here on Tuesday (third-fastest of 30 that day) shows he retains his edge and, perhaps most important, indicated he is comfortable on the Del Mar Polytrack.

From a pedigree aspect, Captain Steel is a son of top-class 2-year-old Hennessy, and both of his siblings are multiple winners.

There are others, of course. S. S. Stone won his debut like a seasoned veteran at Hollywood Park June 29, stalking the pace and surging home to win. Like Azul Leon, he's trained by Doug O'Neill - so he gives that trainer a strong hand. While Rafael Bejarano rode both horses, he sticks with Azul Leon. Garrett Gomez inherits the mount on S. S. Stone.

The most interesting foe may be invader Coronet of a Baron. A $550,000 purchase and son of Pure Prize who is owned by the Darley Stable of Sheikh Mohammed, Coronet of a Baron won his debut in gate-to-wire fashion on the Arlington Polytrack July 6, posting an 81 Beyer. While he led all the way he doesn't appear as quick as Captain Steel, though that may actually be to his benefit if Captain Steel ends up coming back to the field.